Tuesday, February 15, 2011
William Vollman among the Homeless
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I didn’t know that celebrated author William Vollman lived in Sacramento, California—about three miles from the schools I attended, the two houses I grew up in, and my parents’ graves—until I read his article in the March Harper’s, “Homeless in Sacramento: Welcome to the New Tent Cities.” It goes some way toward revealing the quality of life enjoyed by people of whom, as a bookish kid, the well-watched youngest child of older parents, I remained steadfastly unaware.
Vollman lives in Alkali Flat, an elite neighborhood in the nineteenth century, in “redevelopment” since the 1970s, and claimed now by urban garden projects, artists’ collectives, business and government offices, the down and out, and the organizations that serve them. The confluence of the Sacramento River (flowing south on the map above) and the American (flowing west) isn’t far away, and the banks of both rivers, according to Vollman, sheltered the homeless of the Great Depression, as they do the homeless of today. The first of several photographs accompanying Vollman’s article shows a section of the Jibboom Street Bridge ("A" on the map), so familiar a sight that in an instant I was riding on the Sacramento in the back of my friend Sylvia’s motorboat on a hot day in 1970.
Vollman, author of about twenty books (how many depends on how you count his multi-volume works), attributes his involvement with Sacramento’s homeless to the accident of having acquired a parking lot along with the old building he lives in, the exterior of which “cultivates an abandoned look.” Because he doesn’t drive, Vollman parks no vehicles of his own on this “giant rectangle of worn asphalt.” He rented parking spaces to commuters and a local body shop—until homeless people began to show up. The smell of human excrement and unwashed bodies bothers him, and fear of burglary keeps him from inviting the homeless into his house, but he lets his guests stay, some for months at a time. “Who should take care of people in need? . . . While you and I are disagreeing in good faith, what’s happening to the woman the police carried off from my parking lot in a squad car who now has returned to spend the night in a wet blanket . . . because she can’t find a better place?”
When civil charges are brought against Vollman—creating a public nuisance and failure to landscape—he meets advocates for Safe Ground, a “shelter” that moves with the homeless as they are evicted from one location after another. Safe Ground provides clean sleeping bags, tents, a place to stow belongings for short periods of time, and rules that prevent theft and violence within camps, enforced by elected elders. Vollman begins spending occasional nights among Safe Grounders, on the American River, at a Lutheran Church, under the 12th Street Bridge. He recounts some of the stories they tell, changing the tellers’ names.
Vollman is a big-deal writer, a category in which I place people, usually men, who write extremely long, unnecessarily difficult books, most of which I start but don’t finish, like Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and—don’t string me up—James Joyce. But in this article at least, Vollman all but disappears. We hear the uninterpreted voices of the people he talks to and overhears. Whether we come to care for them or not depends on us, not on Vollman’s presentation. Read the article to hear those voices, not because you grew up watching the American River flow into the Sacramento, or because you are an introvert inspired by other introverts who walk out into the world.